Many geese migrate long distances, but some stick around our area all winter. They move around as lakes freeze and deep snows fall, then move back when there’s bare grass to eat. The lagoons in Columbus Park are still frozen, but by Friday enough snow had melted to expose grass under golf course trees. When Columbus Park has grass, Columbus Park has geese. Today Columbus Park has lots of grass, so goose numbers are building — and may soon reach 500 or more.
So, not Robins, and not Canada Geese — what counts as a sign of spring? To my thinking, what you accept depends on your mood — how optimistic you are, or how desperate you are for spring. Each animal and plant lives its schedule, adapted to its needs. From January on, you can pick an indicator species adapted to your feelings, and go from there.
- If you’re really optimistic (or really desperate), look for reports of nesting Great Horned Owls on IBET or other birding e-mail lists. Owls get in the nesting mood as early as January.
- If you’re a bit more cautious, wait for reports of huge flocks of Snow Geese migrating through southern Illinois, as an IBET birder reported just this morning.
- If you’re even more cautious, wait for migrating warblers as your sign of spring. Just be careful which warbler you pick: Palm Warblers come early, but Mourning Warblers wait for May.
- If you’re ridiculously cautious, pick American Goldfinches. They build thistledown nests in mid summer, about the time some shorebirds have begun migrating south. (Pick your spring and fall indicators carefully, and eliminate summer altogether — not a bad idea if you dislike muggy weather.)
If I had to pick just one bird as sign of spring, it would be this: Spring begins when the first Ruby-throated Hummingbirds reach Chicago. That’s partly because hummingbirds arrive when spring flowers bloom, and flowers make it look and smell like spring. But there’s also technology behind my choice: Our family follows hummingbird migration on Hummingbirds.net. The 2008 map is here, and right now it looks a confusing mess. But if you watch it develop through late winter and spring, the dots and dates make much more sense.
Starting in late February, we’ll check the map daily. With every major warm front that passes, the map’s humming-dots surge northward, only to stall out as a cold front follows. Our anticipation builds, then fades, then builds again. We hang our hummingbird feeder when the first dots reach southern Illinois, so we’ll be ready when the dots finally reach Chicago.
But dots on maps don’t immediately translate into hummingbirds in our neighborhood. Last spring the first dot hit Chicago on April 10th, but we saw our first hummingbird in Columbus Park on the 23rd of May. And though we try to feed the hummingbirds at our home, they usually avoid our urbanized yard until the middle of July.
Owls, geese, warblers, goldfinches, hummingbirds — choose your criteron for spring carefully, and match your mood precisely. Then, change criteria as your moods shift.
But weather’s not controlled by moods. No matter how you choose, the weather does what it will. Spring is a journey, not a destination. And for every three steps forward, the next cold front sets us two steps back. In the end, I surf the seasons, searching out and enjoying whatever changes come.
I’ve found lots of things to enjoy about this winter. But there are winter birds I’ve yet to see, and things I’ve not yet done with snow. I’ll be sorry when winter’s gone, anticipating changes that will bring it back.
If you want another opinion about the Top 10 Signs of Spring, read this post by the editor of one of our favorite magazines, Bird Watcher’s Digest.
My family will be keeping our eyes open for these and other signs of the seasons. When we see a new one, we’ll post it here on Neighborhood Nature.